ALEPPO, Syria — The Free Aleppo University, affiliated with the Syrian opposition’s Interim Government, in Azaz in the northern countryside of Aleppo has started a training program for teaching the Kurdish language.
The two-month program, the first of its kind in northwest Syria, began Aug. 14 at the university’s Higher Institute of Languages, which was established in July.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the university said that 90 male and female students have enrolled in the program and that they were divided into four sections after passing an evaluation test.
The university stressed the importance of this program in light of the presence of many Kurdish students in the “liberated areas” (in reference to the areas under the control of the Turkish-backed factions), who aspire to attend academic educational programs.
The announcement sparked widespread controversy among many in the area who resent the Kurds, while others, including Kurdish activists in the Kurdish-majority Afrin region, welcomed the step as a way to foster rapprochement between the ethnic components in the opposition-controlled areas, particularly Arabs and Kurds.
On Aug. 14, the local council in the city of Afrin, affiliated with the Kurdish National Council (KNC), issued a statement praising the Kurdish-language program at the Free Aleppo University in Azaz as “a practical step to consecrate national cohesion and consolidate the culture of coexistence.”
The council thanked the university’s president, officials and staff, and said the step would be “a catalyst for subsequent similar steps.”
Ahmed al-Omar, dean of the Higher Institute of Languages at the Free Aleppo University, told Al-Monitor that the aim of opening the institute is to offer a program to teach living languages in the liberated areas in Syria, and Kurdish is one such language.
Omar said that, since its opening, the institute had already rolled out several language courses — including English, German, Hebrew and Persian — and the Kurdish program was announced after teaching staff were recruited.
“The Kurdish-language program comes as part of the Higher Institute of Languages’s goal to allow native speakers to master their languages and to teach [new] languages to those who wish to learn them … Kurdish is the language of a wide segment of society, and we must help these people to learn their language academically,” he added.
On July 26, the president of the Free Aleppo University, Abdul Aziz al-Daghim, announced the establishment of the Higher Institute of Languages.
In a video recording that the university published on its Facebook page, Omar said that Arabic, English, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese and Persian would be taught.
The Kurdish language was not mentioned at the time, which sparked controversy among Syrian activists in the area who demanded the inclusion of the Kurdish language. The university ended up yielding to their demand and announced in mid-August the inclusion of the Kurdish language at the institute.
Al-Monitor also met Daghim at the university’s headquarters in Azaz. He said, “The university did not neglect the Kurdish language when the opening of the Higher Institute of Languages was announced. We promptly announced the Kurdish-language programs.”
Daghim noted that in early August, he received a delegation of academics and Kurdish-language teachers from Afrin at the headquarters of the university in Azaz.
He said they discussed the possibility of including the Kurdish language among the languages that were offered at the Higher Institute of Languages. The delegation also pledged to secure the needed materials, syllabi and lesson plans to announce the launch of courses to teach the Kurdish language at three educational levels at the Higher Institute of Languages.
Ali Tammy, a KNC member who resides in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor the university’s decision to teach Kurdish is “a positive step in the right direction.” He added, “Language is a key part of any individual’s identity and love for their homeland. This represents a cultural, educational and social step that sheds light on the civilized and human side of the country’s partners against the Syrian regime, which had banned the Kurdish language [in schools throughout its rule]."
Several Syrian Arab and Kurdish activists in the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo countryside demanded more steps to bring closer the area’s ethnic components.
They also urged the opposition-affiliated educational institutions to include the Kurdish language as a main subject in the curriculum in the Kurdish areas in Afrin and its countryside and the Kurdish villages in al-Bab and Azaz.
A Syrian Kurd who teaches the Kurdish language and resides in Afrin told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I believe that the initiative of the Free Aleppo University to teach the Kurdish language and show interest in it has brought joy to many Kurds in the area. Yet this is not enough. We aspire to larger initiatives that consolidate the relationship between the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens in the opposition areas.”
He suggested the opening of “an institute for qualified Kurdish-language teachers in Afrin, Azaz and al-Bab, given the presence of a large number of Kurdish villages in these areas. Also, a department of Kurdish language and literature could be opened in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the Free Aleppo University.”
Meanwhile, many Arabs rejected the Free Aleppo University’s program to teach the Kurdish language, claiming that Kurdish is not a universal language that is required in the global business and trade sectors. They believe teaching French and English, for instance, is much more important than Kurdish.
Others opposed the move for the sole reason that they believe Kurds in Syria are supporters of the Democratic Union Party and its military wings, which they say are an enemy of the Syrian revolution and opposition. They claim the Kurds do not deserve such programs at an opposition-affiliated university.
Bashar al-Saied, a student at the Free Aleppo University who hails from the countryside of Tal Rifaat and currently resides in the northern countryside of Aleppo, decried the move as he resents the Kurdish forces that took control of several areas in north Syria.
Saied, like many in the opposition-held areas, does not differentiate between the Kurdish people and the Kurdish political and military formations, which in general do not represent the Kurdish ethnic component of Syria.
“The step to teach Kurdish at the university is not encouraging. The Kurds do not support the Syrian revolution, and they are closer to the Syrian regime than they are to the opposition. Also, most Kurds support the Kurdish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which occupy large areas of Aleppo’s northern countryside, including Tal Rifaat,” he told Al-Monitor.
Turkey, for its part, did not oppose the Free Aleppo University’s move to introduce Kurdish. Turkey’s lax opposition for this could be seen as part of its efforts to confront the Kurdish claims accusing Ankara and its affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions of seeking demographic change in north Syria by bringing in new settlers to the Kurdish-majority areas, such as Afrin in northern Aleppo, which are under the control of both FSA factions and Kurdish forces.
Meanwhile, violations against Syrian Kurds in Afrin continue to this day, although at a lesser pace. The Turkish-backed FSA factions are often responsible for these violations, which Turkey turns a blind eye to. Many Syrian Kurds are subjected to abuses in public and private facilities, including intensive logging being carried out in the area’s forests, and attacks on the railway and the displaced’s homes.
Also, the FSA factions often carry out arrest campaigns against Syrian Kurds, who are accused of belonging to the Kurdish forces and the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
In light of these abuses, there are talks about the KNC, which is part of the Syrian National Coalition (opposition), taking on a greater role in the Kurdish-majority areas, such as Afrin, where the local council is already affiliated with the KNC. But this local council does not have enough power or influence to stop these violations against Kurds and preserve their rights.